What does it take for a person to be used by God in an extraordinary way? If God wants to move and to do something really unique, what kind of person does he choose? I've been thinking about these questions.
I spent some time thinking about people that God has used in my life. I thought of a preacher. I don't know him personally, but I heard him preach almost thirty years ago, and to this day I can still tell you what he said. I remember being captivated as I heard him speak. Just the other week I met with some friends who were also at the same service, and they said, "Remember when we went to hear that guy preach?" Not everyone can preach in a way that different people remember the same sermon thirty years later. He was a mean with extraordinary preaching gifts.
I thought of some of the preachers on my iPod. I have two or three people on there, and their sermons are consistently good. They have a way of expressing themselves. In some cases entire churches have risen up around their speaking abilities. They have a way of communicating that makes truth come alive.
I have a friend who started a church five years ago in one of the most challenging cities in America. His church has grown like crazy. A magazine for pastors arrived in my mailbox not long ago. I opened it and saw a full page picture of him along with an interview and a recommendation for his book, which is a really good book by the way. I'm excited for him. He's uniquely gifted and God is using him.
Then I thought of some of the dead whose lives have long been over, but whose influence continues: Martin Luther, who changed the course of church history and helped us rediscover the gospel; John Bunyan, a tinkerer who fixed pots and pans, and who wrote a novel that's one of the great works of English literature; Jonathan Edwards, a brilliant thinker and a spark in the revival they call The Great Awakening; C.S. Lewis, who called himself "the most reluctant convert in England," and yet who wrote one of the clearest books exploring Christianity, and volumes of other great works.
I could go on. What all of these people have in common is that they have unique and, I guess you would say, exceptional gifts. You look at them and realize that they have extraordinary gifts that have been used by God in such a way that they have a huge influence. I guess you would have to say that God uses people to who have exceptional gifts.
As a result, we're always looking for that unique person to follow. We live at a time in which the really exceptional individuals can become prominent. So if I asked you to name some people that God is really using across North America at the present time, you would probably come up with five or six people that most of us would recognize from TV or radio or books. We look to these people to set the pace, and we realize that we'll never be these people. It's not that God won't use us; we just don't expect as much because we're not exceptional in the same way. These people are extraordinary, which by definition means they're not like the rest of us.
I don't want to put down these exceptional people. I'm grateful for them. I know that a lot of them didn't ask for the prominence or influence that they have. God has given them exceptional gifts, and with that comes a lot of responsibility and pressure. So I pray for them. I pray that God would continue to use them and that they would stay faithful.
Samson's Exceptional Gifts
But I'd like to look at a story today that calls into question whether we're really looking at the right things when we look at the people we think God is going to use. We're going to look at the life of an extraordinary man, and we're going to realize that in the end, extraordinary gifts aren't always what God uses. Today we're looking at the most famous judge in the book of Judges. If you had to compile a list of the most gifted people in the Bible and throughout history, he would have to appear on that list. His name is Samson.
In all of history, there are few people who showed the promise that Samson did. The story of his birth takes an entire chapter. You can make a short list of people whose birth was miraculous and announced by angels and miracles: Isaac, Samuel, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Samson. Before he's even born, God's hands are on this kid. We read:
You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines (Judges 13:5)
This is completely unparalleled. I think this is the only case of a lifetime Nazirite. Nazirites were men or women who voluntarily dedicated themselves to God's service for a limited period of time. For the time that you were a Nazirite, you could not take alcohol, touch a corpse, or get your hair cut. When the temporary period was over, you could go back to normal.
We read a couple of verses later that Samson is to be a "Nazrite of God from the womb until the day of his death" (Judges 13:7). Samson is unique. He's a Nazirite, but not for a limited time, and not voluntarily. He's chosen by God to be a lifelong Nazirite, somebody whose entire life is dedicated to God in sacrificial service.
At the end of the chapter we read, "He grew and the LORD blessed him, and the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him" (Judges 13:24-25). He is most likely to succeed, what they call a wunderkind – a person who achieves great success when relatively young.
Once in a while, somebody comes on the scene, and it's clear that God's hand is all over that person. Before we had kids, I used to debate nature versus nurture. I wondered how much of the way kids turned out is because of the way they're raised. Then I had children, and the debate was over. Children don't arrive in this world as blank slates. They arrive with certain bents, and of course nurture plays a role too. Here is somebody who shows up who is, both by divine design and the way that he is raised, meant to make a difference.
And we see that Samson does demonstrate extraordinary ability:
- When attacked by a lion, he tears the lion apart with his bare hands, "as he might have torn a young goat" (Judges 14:6). That makes it sound like it's easy to tear apart a young goat with your hands. Personally, I'm impressed if you're tough enough to tear apart a young goat. To tear apart an attacking lion is way beyond impressive.
- When he loses a bet and has to pay the wager – thirty pieces of clothing – he doesn't buy the clothes. He goes to a major Philistine city, kills thirty men, and takes their garments to pay the winners who won the bet. No idea how he can go into a major enemy city, kill thirty men, and return with their clothes.
- When he gets angry with some Philistines, he catches three hundred jackals, ties their tails together, lit their tails, and sent then into grain and orchards. Think about what it would take to do that.
- When he's bound, he's able to break the ropes like they're nothing. He's then able to use a fresh jawbone as a weapon. Fresh bones were not yet dried out and hard, and therefore less useful as a weapon. But it was enough for Samson to kill a thousand men.
- When Philistine men lay in wait for him, he not only gets past them but he unlocked the huge city gates and their bards, put them on his shoulders, and carried them away.
I know a lot of this is gruesome, but it's supposed to be. Samson was born to begin to deliver Israel from the Philistine enemies. He shows that his strengths are more than equal to the task. This man can do practically anything.
Samson has been announced by angels before he's born. He has superhuman strength. He wins fights with the enemy without seeming to even try. He is one of the most gifted and capable people in history. No deliverer in the book of Judges matches his potential.
Samson is the child prodigy who shows talent at an early age; the author whose every book is a bestseller; the preacher that can't help but pack out the church every time he preaches. He is, actually, a picture of Israel: chosen by God, brought into being by his power, commissioned at an early age, dedicated to God.
Yet in looking at Samson, we come to realize that his life is a downward spiral into tragedy, the story of a great leader who squanders everything that he has been given and never lives up to his potential. Despite all of his gifts, he wastes his life. In the end, the best thing that he ever does is die. He accomplishes more by dying than he ever did by living. Talk about a wasted life.
Samson's Wasted Life
Do you realize that in Samson's entire life, despite all of his strengths, he never once leads an army into battle against the Philistines? His whole life is a series of personal crusades based on his whims and desires.
Not to mention all the times that he violated his Nazirite vows. He wasn't supposed to drink wine, yet he is attacked by a lion near a vineyard, and spends a week drinking with his Philistine buddies. He wasn't supposed to touch a corpse, yet he tears animals apart; he eats honey out of the carcass, and he uses a donkey jawbone as a weapon.
He was supposed to deliver Israel from the Philistines, right? Instead, he takes a Philistine wife and frequents a Philistine prostitute. He violates his Nazirite covenant at every turn. He is foolishly arrogant, rash, insolent, impetuous, and he gets himself into all kinds of compromising situations. He's drawn to idols – the idols in his life are foreign women. Never in the entire narrative does he act in anyone's interest but his own.
Eventually, he falls in love with a Philistine woman, Delilah, and gets entangled with her and loses his strength. Why? His strength wasn't in his hair. The reason that he lost his strength is much more serious than that. Judges 16:20 says, "He did not know that the LORD had left him." Daniel Block, a commentator on Judges, writes:
To be abandoned by God is the worst fate anyone can experience. Now the divinely chosen agent of Yahweh has lost him. Samson's game is over. For a whole chapter he had been playing with his God-given talent; now he discovers that he has frittered it all away.
God raises up this man and gives him extraordinary gifts, but in the end walks away from him. Gifts aren't enough for God to use him.
Even at the end of Samson's life, with his eyes gouged out, Samson prays to God which is good, but he prays a very self-centered prayer. "Sovereign LORD, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes" (Judges 16:28). No mention of the national emergency or the divine agenda he was supposed to fulfill. No thought of God's long-range plan. He's completely self-absorbed.
But – God answered his prayer. The Nazirite, set apart from God's service, pulls down the pillars of the temple and dies with the enemy. The narrator comments, "Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived" (Judges 16:30). That's not a compliment. It's tragic. "This man, with his unprecedented high calling and with his extraordinary divine gifts, has wasted his life. Indeed, he accomplishes more for God dead than alive" (Daniel Block).
Israel is better off with the death of Samson than they ever were with his life. It's a wasted life, a tragedy. It's only at the end that you see even a glimpse of his promise.
Samson is the archetypal strong man who could defeat his enemies in battle but could not control his sensual appetites. Most tragic heroes are afflicted by a single dominant flaw of character, but Samson exhibits multiple flaws. We can bring them into focus by completing the formula "the dangers of…": the dangers of self-reliance, physical strength, success, appetite, self-indulgence, overconfidence, susceptibility to women of questionable character, religious complacency, recklessness, misplaced trust, squandered gifts from God, and broken vows. (ESV Literary Study Bible)
Another person comments, "Never has so much been given to someone who accomplished so little."
Spiritual Fruit and Ministry
What do you make of all of this? I asked you at the start of this sermon what it takes for a person to be used in an extraordinary way. We said that God uses people to who have exceptional gifts. I think of many of the people that I mentioned – the extraordinary preachers, the thinkers and writers and other people who have had a huge influence. But as I think about it now, their strengths are only part of the picture. The preacher I heard thirty years ago, whose sermon was riveting – he's a great preacher, but I'm not sure he's a great man. We really value gifts, but you can have all the gifts in the world and still end up wasting your life.
I actually think we need to revise this now. Samson had exceptional gifts, but he does not represent someone that God uses in an extraordinary way. He represents someone who wasted his talents, and who in the end wasted his life.
I don't understand why some people are extraordinarily gifted by God, even though they're anything but godly. Remember Amadeus, the movie about Mozart? Mozart's contemporary, Antonio Salieri, prayed as a young man, "Let me make music that will glorify you, Father. Help me lift the hearts of people to heaven. Let me serve you through my music"
God didn't answer that prayer. Salieri never became that great musician. But Mozart did. Mozart dazzled the crowds, playing music as if it was second nature to him. His melodies were complex and fun all at the same time, songs that soared till they seemed to bring heaven right down to earth. Yet Mozart was an obvious sinner. He was immature, vulgar, and obscene. He made off with the ladies every chance he could get. Salieri never understood why God chose to give Mozart extraordinary gifts and not him.
The problem is that we often confuse spiritual gifts with spiritual maturity, and spiritual maturity is far more important than exceptional spiritual gifts. We tend to confuse the two, and it's one of our most deadly mistakes. You may not be a person of exceptional spiritual gifts, but through the power of the Spirit you have the potential to be a person of spiritual maturity. And these are the people – not those with exceptional gifts – that God delights in using.
Spiritual gifts, extraordinary gifts, are nice. But you can have all the gifts in the world and end up wasting your life. In the end, what God uses is not people with extraordinary gifts. It's people who are moving toward spiritual maturity. It's people who come to understand and apply the gospel, no matter how much or how little they're gifted.
In the refection quote today, Tim Keller gets at this. What he says about pastors and church leaders is true of all of us:
Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don't need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn't based on their performance.
You don't need strengths like Samson. You need repentance, and a knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. Spiritual maturity is far more important than spiritual gifts.
Robert Murray McCheyne was a Scottish minister back in the 1800s. He was only 29 when he died. The week before he died, he preached on Isaiah 60:1: "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you."
They found a letter by his bedside when he died. The letter was from someone who heard him preach his last sermon. That sermon, the letter said, brought him to Christ, but it wasn't what he said in the sermon. That's just what a preacher loves to hear. It's what he saw in McCheyne. "I saw the glory of the Savior resting on you." It wasn't his gifts that counted in the end; it was the glory of the LORD in the life of this man. Spiritual maturity is far more important than spiritual gifts.
By the way, Samson also reminds us of the one who is able to bring about these gifts in our life. Samson is a foil for Jesus. They are polar opposites in attitude and action. Samson's concerns were about Samson; Christ, on the other hand, emptied himself of self-interest, self-determination, and self-glorification.
He made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
In his death, Samson cared more about personal revenge, not God's plan to deliver the Israelites. In Christ's death, Jesus laid aside self-interest for the Father's plan to be fulfilled.
It doesn't matter how gifted you are. The one who turns to that Jesus, who has the same attitude of mind that Christ Jesus did, and through the power of the gospel becomes transformed – that, not the gifted individual, is the person that God uses.
Father, we are so impressed with those who have exceptional gifts. But in your kingdom, it isn't the gifted or the strong that you use. You have chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.
Therefore we will boast all the more gladly about our weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on us. That is why, for Christ's sake, we delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when we are weak, then we are strong.
Teach us that spiritual maturity is more important than spiritual gifts. And draw us to the One who has the power to change us. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.